To Brand, Or Not To Brand, that is NOT the Question (Part 2)

Let’s start with a hypothetical. Which do you think is more likely? You finding a unicorn nibbling on the grass in your backyard tomorrow morning, or you finding people in your context who have an existing set of presumptions about the ‘church’? Who knew the answer to such a question can help church planters and pastors know how to develop a church plant brand.

Yes, we are talking about you and branding. You are branding your church. And this unavoidable reality is directly linked to the missionary identity of the church. Let’s recap last week so you understand what that means and how to take advantage of this opportunity.

We began with a definition of “branding.” Your brand is the feeling, expectation, story, relationship and perception that, taken together, represent what people believe about your church—either good, bad or indifferent. Risking oversimplification, I would break it down to your church’s visual reputation (although, technically, your brand is not exclusively visual).

Next, you are a brand manager whether you embrace it or not.

And last, your church’s brand is linked to your church’s missionary identity.

Where Do You Stand When You Brand?

how to develop a church plant brand

What we see depends upon where we stand. Take a concert, for example. We could stand backstage or we could be on the back row. Big difference. If you are an American Idol fan, you have witnessed the awkward moment where the contestant removes her in-ear monitors with all smiles, and a judge breaks the news “I’m sorry…but that was all over the place out here.” We could stand behind the soundboard in the middle of the venue (IE work for the artist) or we could stand behind the mic on center stage (IE be the artist). This changes the entire show.

Branding your church works in similar fashion. Where you stand matters.

I have found we approach church branding like most everything else…we start with ourselves. This, in fact, is instinctual and universal. Starting with “me” is true of most organizations, but may be more prevalent in the church. Ironic, I know.

I come across it all the time when I work with clients of Robby Fowler Design. The conversation follows this pattern as I speak with clients, :

ME: I suggest x,y,z as a way to accomplish your goal.

CLIENT: “We thought about that too…but then we would have to do a,b,c.”

To be fair, my suggestion is not always right and their response is not always wrong. But the underlying principle is this…‘your suggestion may accomplish our goal, but would make life more difficult or complicated for me or others in our organization.’

That principle creeps into how many of us approach branding our church. Changing our perspective is the key to understanding branding and welcoming our role as brand managers.

Option 1: Standing Inside

One common approach to branding your church is to view it from ‘inside’ the organization. This perspective is understandable. This is the air we breath. As church planters and pastors, we are deep into this thing all the time. When the alarm goes off in the morning, the church is on our mind. Our calendar and to-do list reflects the all-consuming nature of planting a church. And tomorrow’s outlook is more of the same as our head hits the pillow each evening.

Here are a few ways this ‘insider’ viewpoint shapes how we brand our church or church plant.

For those who consider ‘branding’ a four-letter word or a foreign concept, we assume everyone shares the same perspective. Our perspective is, “It does not matter” or “It should not matter.” We think, “I make our vision crystal clear in my sermons and at key points in our gathering.” When we take up this stance, we proceed by paying little or no attention to the visual reputation of our church. We assume the disinterested or disillusioned are present. We presume our charisma or preaching or envisioning will draw them. Even for those who might be there, they have already had some contact with your ‘brand.’ When it comes to “outsiders” interacting with your church, branding is up the flow chart a bit. Think, “In the beginning…”.

Another insider viewpoint says, “I do not have any idea what ‘branding’ is.” Then we presume the same level of ignorance exists in those we are called to serve. We effectively say, “My context is blind to the visual reputation of our church.” What affect does this view have on your church’s brand? You have an ugly logo mark. You use eight different fonts in one week’s worth of communication. You bounce between seven different color schemes. You take one approach, while other leaders and content producers in your church take a different approach. Before long, your ‘brand’ is diluted and confusing. Who you are and what you represent is clouded by smog. It is NOT that your brand ceases to exist, for that is impossible. It is worse. Your brand does exists as a convoluted mess creating more barriers for the gospel to move forward.

If we stand where our audience stands, our perspective changes. Remember, our audience has a set of presumptions about the church. Those presumptions are primarily negative. If they were not, they would likely be connected to a church. We are not doing ourselves any favors, nor serving our neighbors, when our church’s brand—the visual reputation of our church—screams “we don’t care” (or “we don’t know how to care”). We just confirmed what our audience presumed about the church.

The result of branding from the ‘inside’ is a missed opportunity to identify with our cultural context—our mission field. We fail to live out our identity as God’s missionary people. We miss the opportunity to create a visual reputation of our church that says: We do care. We can relate. We know you exist. We are intentional. We do not presume to have earned your ear, but we are taking steps to do so. We are not content with being irrelevant. We are here to contribute.

Confession

I am pro choice—meaning, I regularly choose what serves me over what costs me and serves others. This disease of sin infects how you and I brand our church. We consider the ‘cost’ of branding. We balance the challenge it presents to us as “brand managers”, against the convenience of claiming “ignorance” and trying to play possum. We instinctually recognize, ‘I would have to pay a lot more attention…I would have to slow down…I would have to sacrifice some quantity for quality…I would need to illicit outside help…I would have to allocate some resources…’. Our excuses for being poor brand managers are diverse. On the one hand, we might say “I came out of a context where we paid way too much attention to that stuff. My lack of attention is my way of assuring our purity as a church.” On the other, we think “That does not come natural to me and I am too busy to mess with it.” But our motive for being poor brand managers is often singular—“my current approach is the easiest for me.”

Good News

Jesus was focused on one choice—choosing to serve you and me over himself. He counted the cost, and reflecting the Father’s heart, determined that his love for us was far greater than his concern for himself. Sure, he lived in a cultural context that was predominantly oral, not visual. But he had a distinct reputation for engaging, entering in, caring, being present, relating, associating and loving the unlovely. He had a laser-sharp oral brand statement: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. We want a brand that communicates our heart for the city, context and people groups we are called to serve. Ask him to give you his heart for reaching those he sent you to serve, even when it costs you to do something foreign or scary, like branding your church with a visual reputation for caring.

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